A Conversation between Mother and Daughter

The title says it all and offers an insight into family discipline

by Hilary Wilmington

As she entered the kitchen, Sasha was blinded by the sun streaming through the windows, so she did not at first notice her mother, who was sitting at the table shelling peas.

“Oh, I didn’t see you,” said Sasha. “Why isn’t the radio on?”

Penelope usually had the radio on when she was working in the kitchen. If Sasha had known her mother was here she would have stayed in her room. She braced herself for the deluge of recrimination she expected and all those awkward questions  she would have to answer, for which as yet she had not managed to think up any plausible lies.

“Hullo, darling,” said her mother cheerfully. “You’re very late. It’s after midday. Oh well, you’re only young once I suppose. Did you have a nice time last night?”

“Er, yes,” said Sasha, warily. What on earth was going on?

“Glad to hear it. Now you’re here, you can help me shell these peas.”

“Can I just get some breakfast first? I’m starving,” said Sasha.

“Of course. Would you like me to do you some scrambled egg on toast, while you get yourself some cereal?” Asked Penelope.

“Yes, that would be nice,” said a bewildered Sasha. She got some cereal and ate that while her mother prepared the scrambled eggs.

Penelope watched affectionately as her daughter devoured the cereal and then attacked the scrambled eggs with equal relish.

“So what time did you get back?” She asked. “I hope you didn’t keep Bernard up beyond the appointed time. Not that Hugh would have let you do that, I’m sure.”

Penelope detected a note of derision in her own voice and felt guilty. She ought to have been delighted with Sasha’s boyfriend, Hugh, and indeed she had been, at first. He was twenty-three years old, conventionally good-looking, with a well-paid job in the City and perfect manners. But, not to put too fine a point on it, he was also boring. He had a feeble sense of humour and and he rarely said anything interesting or even unusual.

“You know what time I got back,” replied Sasha. “Bernard must have told you.”

“I haven’t seen him today. He had to go into the office early and he left before I woke. He had to get his own breakfast. I’m sure he didn’t mind. He says I need my beauty-sleep,” she added complacently.

“Oh,” said Sasha. So that explained it. Her heart sank. Now she was going to have to tell her mother what had happened and watch her kind, loving manner turn to anger. It was like the time at school when she and a friend had been caught smoking by a prefect. Instead of reporting them, the prefect made them go to their house-mistress and own up themselves. She remembered the way the house-mistress’s warm, friendly greeting turned to surprised displeasure as they told her the purpose of their visit. It had been a worse ordeal than the punishment that followed.

“So what time did you get in?” Her mother persisted, sounding mildly uneasy already.

“Well, it was very late, I’m afraid,” admitted Sasha.

“What time?” Repeated her mother. Her suspicions were thoroughly aroused now. Since Sasha did not reply immediately, she repeated her question: “What? … Time? … Exactly?” Penelope had a habit, in situations like this, of speaking with exaggerated emphasis and leaving gaps between each word or phrase, as though she was speaking with huge patience to a person of limited understanding.

“Half-past two,” said Sasha.  Actually it had been more like twenty-to-three.

Penelope just looked at her with her mouth open in disbelief. Mother and daughter stared at each other for several moments without speaking, until Sasha could bear it no longer and dropped her gaze. She concentrated on some crumbs on her plate, left over from the scrambled egg on toast.

“Half … Past … Two,” Penelope repeated, in the same style of diction, which Sasha found sometimes, as now, alarming as well as annoying. “You stayed out till half … past … two?  And Bernard had to wait up for you?”

“He didn’t have to wait up,” she said sulkily.

“No he didn’t,” replied Penelope. “It was very nice of him to do it. Very nice to me, and very nice to you as well.”

Sasha secretly agreed. She had been touched to see the look of extreme relief on Bernard’s face when she arrived back, even if it had been swiftly replaced by anger. Well-controlled anger but none the less intimidating for that.

However, all she said to her mother was: “So you’re on his side. I knew you would be.”

“If you are seriously expecting me to approve of you being out at a night club until half-past two in the morning at your age, then I’m sorry to disappoint you,” said her mother. “Unless you have a truly good excuse, I think you are in for an uncomfortable few minutes at bed-time.”

“I’m too old for that,” Sasha protested. “I’ve left school now.”

“What has leaving school got to do with it?”

“That’s when you stop getting the cane. At home as well.”

“Whatever gave you that idea?”

Luckily, Sasha had nearly finished her scrambled eggs. She suddenly didn’t feel hungry any longer. She swallowed the last mouthful with difficulty.

“I’m surprised at Hugh,” her mother said. “Why didn’t he insist on bringing you back by midnight? Or didn’t he know that was the agreement? Under-twenty-ones are not even supposed to be in that club after midnight.”

“Hugh is over twenty-one.”

“But you’re not. Stop prevaricating. What happened? I want to know and I am going to find out, so you might as well just tell me. I presume you’ve told Bernard already. I hope it was the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.”

“I haven’t told him anything. He sent me straight to bed. He said we’d talk about it today when he got home.”

The telephone rang. There was an extension in the kitchen. Penelope picked up the receiver and spoke.

“Belgravia two-four-seven-three? Hullo darling. How are you feeling? I’m sorry you had such a late night last night. Sasha’s told me. I’m furious. Yes. Yes, I know. She’s here. We’re in the kitchen. Do you want to speak to her? All right, I’ll tell her. Would it be all right to eat at seven? Your favourite; beef bourguignon. ‘Bye darling.”

As soon as Penelope put the phone down, her daughter asked: “What are you supposed to tell me?”

“He wants to see you in the library at six o’clock.”

Bernard called his study ‘the library’. Penelope teased him about it sometimes. She thought it sounded impossibly grand but, to be fair, it was lined with books from floor to ceiling and it was a large room.

“He expects you to explain yourself,” she reported. “I hope you have a very good explanation indeed. If not, you can expect to be there again before you go to bed.”

When Penelope returned to the table, she sat at a different chair, one right opposite Sasha. She put her chin on her hands and looked directly across at her daughter, making it clear that she was waiting for her to speak.

“Hugh wasn’t there,” Sasha blurted out.

“You mean he left you in the club and you stayed on all that time?” Penelope was incredulous.

“I didn’t go with him at all. We’ve split up. A few days ago. I went with someone else.”

“You told me you were going with Hugh.”

“You wouldn’t have let me go otherwise.”

“Who is this man? What did you do? What happened?” Penelope was shouting now. There was panic in her voice.

“Nothing happened. I know what you’re going to say, don’t make the same mistake you did and all that. I keep telling you, I understand. I’m not going to get pregnant. There is no need to worry.”

“If there’s no need for me to worry, why all the secrecy?”

“Because you wouldn’t have let me go.”

“You’re damn right I wouldn’t. That was an out-and-out lie you told me.”

Sasha shrugged dejectedly. “What am I going to tell Bernard?” She asked plaintively.

“Tell him the truth,” said her mother firmly.

“Then he’ll definitely…” Sasha left hanging in the air what he would definitely do.

“Yes, he will. Definitely. But you should have thought of that before you told him lies and disobeyed him. Now: who did you go with?” Her mother demanded.

“You don’t know him.”

“What’s his name?”

“Rick.”

Penelope noted that her daughter brightened perceptibly when pronouncing this name.

“How long has this been going on?”

“Nothing’s been ‘going on’. Last night was the first time I went out with him.”

“How old is he?”

“Nineteen.”

“Nineteen! So a boy of only nineteen took you to a night club where neither of you were supposed to be after midnight?”

Despite her words, Penelope was secretly relieved to hear that this Rick was only nineteen. She had leapt to the conclusion that Sasha had fallen prey to an older man.

“Did you see Mr Barrington?” She asked. “I’m sure Bernard will have told him to expect you and he knows Hugh, too.”

Mr Barrington was the owner of the club and an acquaintance of Bernard’s, which was the main reason Sasha was allowed to go there and no other club. Sasha mumbled something in reply that Penelope could not understand, so she asked for a repetition.

“I said, we didn’t go to that night club. We went to a different one.”

“Which doesn’t have that rule, in which case it cannot be a respectable one.”

“It does have that rule but I think Rick knows the doorman or something. He seemed to know just about everyone there,” she added proudly. Then she noticed the look her mother was directing at her and re-composed her expression accordingly.

“That’s yet another downright lie you told us then,” said Penelope. “I think you are going to find sitting down very uncomfortable indeed tomorrow.”

“I wish you’d never married Bernard,” Sasha burst out angrily.

“No you don’t. Or if you do, you are very foolish. Bernard has paid for you to have an excellent education and you had a very nice time at boarding school. And you’ve made friends there who will be a great asset to you in life as well as being very nice in themselves. You needn’t think you would have met the likes of Valerie Bowes-Parker if you had gone to the local state school, or if you had they wouldn’t have looked twice at you.”

“You’re such a snob!”

“And you’re being childish. I’m merely telling you how the world works. If you want to socialise in the highest circles you need to have gone to the right school. Not that it was necessary in order for you to meet up with someone like this Rick Who-ever-he-is, I’m sure.” She was shamelessly fishing for information and it worked.

“You don’t know anything about him! I’ll have you know Rick went to a tip-top public school. His father is a politician who might be made a Cabinet Minister soon.”

Penelope’s alarm now switched to a different direction. “You have to be careful of those types,” she warned. “They’ll take advantage of you without a second thought. They think they’re entitled. I’d like to know a lot more about this young man.”

‘I bet you would!’ Thought Sasha.

Aloud, she said: “You seem to forget that I am the daughter of Lady Penelope Railton and the step-daughter of Sir Bernard Railton. Nobody is entitled to take advantage of me and they don’t.”

Not perceiving that she in turn was being played with, Penelope swelled with pride. Bernard had been knighted only a few months previously and she was still basking in the pleasure of being ‘Lady Penelope’.

“When I think of all those wagging tongues when I married Bernard,” she complained. “Talking about…” She stopped.

“Talking about how you had a daughter born out of wedlock?” Prompted Sasha.

“Yes, well. I had to put up with a couple of snide remarks even after he was knighted. About how broad-minded it was of the government. But you mustn’t let such things get to you.”

“I don’t,” said Sasha. “Certainly not now.”

“Just remember how much better off we are now,” said Penelope. “Living in a lovely, enormous flat in the most expensive part of London. And Bernard is very generous to you. There’s not many girls who could call their distinguished stepfather by their Christian name. And if he disciplines you sometimes, that’s good for you too. I don’t want you repeating my mistakes. My biggest wish is that you don’t make the same sort of mistakes that I made and have the sort of trouble I had.”

“So you keep saying. So you always say. The trouble is, you are besotted with Bernard.”

“No I am not, darling. I love him but I am not besotted. ‘Besotted’ is what you are with Rick.”

“Don’t be ridiculous! I’ve only met him twice. I hardly know him.”

“That’s no bar. In fact it’s a great help.”

Silence settled between mother and daughter for several minutes. Despite their last exchange, it was not an uncomfortable silence. Their conversation had produced a greater understanding and sympathy between them.

Penelope broke the silence, by saying delicately: “Why not wear your shorty pyjamas tonight?”

Sasha promptly flared up again. “Why should I?” She asked indignantly. On previous occasions she had always worn a pair of her regulation boarding school pyjamas. They never came out of the drawer otherwise, when she was at home. Her shorty pyjamas were quite different. Not only would her legs be bare, there would be a couple of inches of bare midriff on show as well.

Penelope’s reply was delivered once more in her trademark emphatic style. This time, it sounded as though she was counting her points off on her fingers, although she did not actually do so.

“Because you are going to get the cane anyway, which you thoroughly deserve. So why not give him a treat?”

“If it’s a treat for him, he’s just a hypocrite,” retorted Sasha.

“No he’s not. He likes girls and he likes us to behave. There’s nothing wrong with that.” Before Sasha could respond, Penelope added: “Well, perhaps he is, on second thoughts. Men are all a bit hypocritical about that sort of thing. Women are probably hypocrites about other things.”

“It’s all right for you,” complained Sasha. “He doesn’t cane you.”

Her mother did not reply. She reached carefully over to the bowl of peas, pulled them in front of her and resumed shelling them, with great deliberation. After a few moments, the possible meaning of her mother’s lack of verbal response dawned on Sasha.

“You don’t mean…?”

This was greeted by further silence, the significance of which could not now be doubted.

“But what for?” Asked Sasha, bewildered. “You’re wonderful to Bernard. The flat is always spick and span and you cook him lovely meals.”

“Yes, but I’m not always a good girl,” Penelope replied. “Probably because I didn’t have someone like Bernard to correct me when I was younger. Sometimes I just can’t help myself and I go on huge spending sprees and buy lots of lovely things and go wildly over my monthly allowance. I think it’s perfectly fair to punish me for that. I don’t make any fuss about it. I just put on a nice pair of stockings and take what’s coming to me. Now, what about these peas?” She asked, having, she hoped, got her point across. She wanted to get off this topic. “I thought you were going to help me with them.”

“Oh, OK then,” said Sasha reluctantly.

She picked up a pod, ran her thumbnail down the side of it to split it open and spilled the peas into the bowl. She was shocked and fascinated by what she had just heard and she could not resist pursuing it.

“Do you have to face the wall afterwards?” She asked. “That’s what he makes me do. With my hands on my head.”

“Mind your own business,” replied her mother. “I’m not about to share all the details of my married life with you. I just wanted you to understand that this has nothing to do with being at school or not being at school. For as long as you live under this roof, you will be expected to conduct yourself according to Bernard’s rules, and if you break them you will have to suffer the consequences, just as I do. But perhaps,” she added. “You’ll be away again soon, if you go to the Finishing School in Switzerland.”

Penelope raised the topic of Finishing School because it was the only thing she could think of on the spur of the moment. It was a good bet for diverting Sasha to a different topic, but only because she was prone to fly into a temper about it, insisting that it was an old-fashioned, out-of-date thing to do and hardly any of her friends from school were going to a Finishing School.

Penelope secretly sympathised with this view although she was loyally supporting Bernard on the issue.  She was surprised by the mildness of Sasha’s reaction now.

“Perhaps,” her daughter replied, guardedly. “I haven’t quite made up my mind whether I want to go to Finishing School.”

Penelope was not to know that Sasha had discovered the previous evening that Rick’s sister was due to attend this exact same Finishing School. He hadn’t seemed to think it was an impossibly old-fashioned thing to do.

They shelled peas in silence for a few more minutes before Sasha said: “Are you going to talk to Bernard about what happened, before I have to see him?”

She wanted her mother to understand how much she dreaded breaking the news to Bernard herself, about what she’d done. It was sure to be worse than anything he would have imagined. It would help if he was even just given a hint beforehand about how bad she had been.

“Don’t expect me to intercede for you,” her mother said sharply, adding in a more sympathetic tone: “Not that it would make any difference anyway.”

She was sure Bernard would decide on ‘six of the best’ for Sasha tonight, once he had learned the shocking extent to which she had flouted his authority. He frequently threatened Penelope herself with it, in a jocular way, wagging his finger admonishingly at her. And she went along with it, making up to him and giggling about it with him. However, she had also actually had it, more than once, so she knew that the reality was no laughing matter. She had not been exaggerating when she warned Sasha that it would be uncomfortable sitting down afterwards.

Penelope thought about the last time she’d had it. A large bill from Harrods had dropped onto the doormat just as Bernard was about to leave for the office. He was very cross. Penelope had just got out of the bath. He made her go along to the library wrapped only in a towel, which of course she had to remove for the beating. It was most unfortunate because she had arranged to meet a friend to go swimming that morning and her swimsuit did not quite hide all the stripes. She’d spent ages at the mirror tugging at it and stretching it, to no avail. She had had to cancel.

When Bernard had rung her in the afternoon, as he usually did, she had told him and he, sounding pleased and amused had said: “Serves you right!”

He had also told her that since there hadn’t been time in the morning, she would have to do her five minutes standing facing the wall in the evening, straight after supper. And in case she was wondering, she would be in the same state of undress as she had been for the cane. The upshot had been a ridiculously early night.

“What are you smiling about?” Asked Sasha suspiciously.

“Nothing,” said Penelope hastily. “My mind was wandering. Listen, if I do get a chance to say anything to Bernard, can I tell him that you are coming round to the idea of Finishing School? It might be a good idea, after all. It would only be for six months and Switzerland is very pleasant.”

“Yes, OK,” said Sasha.

The interview at six o’clock was not as awful as Sasha had anticipated. The details of her shame-faced confession were obviously not a real surprise to Bernard, though he pretended they were, and for this she offered up silent thanks to her mother. He admonished her severely but briefly and told her to report to him back in the library at 9 o’clock, dressed for bed, when she could expect to receive six of the best.

Supper was not as awkward as she had feared it would be, either. His pronouncement of her punishment and her unprotesting acceptance of it had cleared the air. Forgiveness was assured. Sasha even managed to enjoy her beef bourguignon.

When she went up to her room afterwards, she found on her bed, beautifully ironed and neatly folded, her shorty pyjamas. Her mother had thoughtfully placed a jar of cream next to them.

The End

© Hilary Wilmington 2017